Thursday, July 21, 2016

Thriving At Rock Bottom: Dirt Cheap Meals PART II

You've Got It -- What Do You Do With It?

Sometimes you need to economize.
     Maybe a trip's coming up.
     Or a new (and large) purchase.
     A medical bill.
    The holidays.  (They'll be here before you know it.)

And if you've read PART I, you know that one of the few categories with some wiggle room is:

PART I suggested different foods and approaches. Now's your chance to make those careful purchases count!

*Eggs, eggs: the versatile fruit. Scrambled eggs take only a few minutes to make, and are protein-packed. Fold them into a heated corn tortilla with grated cheese, and you've got a crunchy quesadilla -- or what our family calls 'cheese guys.' Not only are these portable -- they freeze well. Add a little crumbled bacon, sliced sausage or refried beans; salsa is good.
      They're good for supper too, as stuffed eggs, an omelet, a frittata...or adding substance to pasta and cheese. Pour sauce over the breakfast burritos and bake with cheese, if you've got leftovers.
      If you have a special event coming up, though, reserve a dozen eggs for cookies or a special cake. (No eggs left? You can still make delicious cake.)

*Got a celebration? Don't go out to eat. Instead, ask beforehand what the special person would like. Check sales ads, and freeze ahead of time, if needed.
     Many families have time-honored foods for certain holidays. One set of friends has Cornish hens for Christmas Eve; another family features prime rib. The Mama is fond of oyster stew, celery and appetizers. (For us, it's Seven Fish Dishes.) Planning ahead gives you time to search for the ingredients needed on sale or marked-down...instead of rushing out at the last minute and grabbing whatever you can find. Even if you must pay full price, planning ahead will let you set aside money to cover the lobster tails or pomegranates.

*Find your roots. Or sauces. The United States is a conglomerate of so many cuisines -- many of them from immigrants who came here with little money. Those people learned to make do and adapt, turning out delicious dishes in the process. (It's why American Irish serve corned beef for St. Patrick's Day, for example -- instead of mutton.) Explore your particular background, and you're bound to find a culture with budget food. Serve it proudly -- you're celebrating your heritage.

*Stretch your meat. Or fish. Or other protein. Don't just grill a large steak -- cut the piece in half lengthwise, grill both, and serve one. Thinly sliced, the remaining piece becomes Steak Salad, with greens, tomato, mushrooms -- and a touch of chopped onion. Two meals for one price.
     Chicken's even better. Roast it, and serve with mashed potatoes and gravy made from the pan drippings. Take all the meat off the bones, and set them to simmer in water overnight in a crock pot, along with any celery leaves, onion peels and other vegetable leavings. You'll have 4-6 cups of excellent chicken broth, which then can become the basis for chicken and dumplings, chicken a la king and chicken enchiladas. Along with the meat and any leftover gravy, you'll have enough for at least two more meals. Make a final meal of soup to clean up what's left. Voila: 4 meals from one chicken. (Or like this.)

* * * * * * * * * * * *


handful of diced chicken meat
whatever broth is left -- with a chicken bouillon cube or two added  (you'll need about 4 cups liquid)
a few handfuls of any chopped veggies   (corn, celery, carrots, onion, etc. Green pepper is especially good, if you can handle it -- the Brick has digestive issues)
can of chopped tomatoes  (or three fresh ones, chopped)
1 teaspoon taco seasoning or garlic...or 1 tablespoon salsa (keep more handy to taste)
1 egg (set aside for now)

Simmer together 15-20 minutes; stir the egg in, turn the heat off and wait a few minutes. Serve topped with a spoonful of sour cream or sprinkle of cheese, and tortilla chips.
    (Leftover salsa, rice or even chopped-up enchiladas or tacos can be added to this versatile dish.)

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

*Go vegetarian to save -- but you don't have to. The Bricks are a meat-eating tribe, plain and simple. I come from farming stock who raised their own cattle, pigs and chickens. They fished for bluegills and bass, salmon and smelt. And the entire family went hunting in the fall, for rabbit, pheasant and deer. (Some of the women knocked off early to go prepare supper, or feed the kids -- but everyone else stayed out.)
     Once or twice a week, we'll have beans and rice, macaroni and cheese or potato soup -- but we almost always have meat the rest of the time. We just have less of it.

*Substitute with abandon. The recipe calls for cream? Use milk. Tomato paste? Tomato sauce can do the trick -- if you use less liquid. Even one egg can be substituted, if you're short on hens' fruit. (Use an eggshell full of water instead, or a teaspoon of lecithin.) 'Short' a teaspoon to a tablespoon of butter, oil or sugar from what the recipe calls for-- you won't miss the extra calories. (Adjust by adding a little extra water, milk or broth, if needed.)
      You do NOT have to use exact ingredients for a tasty dish. In fact, as the Brick is discovering, many dishes allow you to add or subtract, using what you've got. (Make a note on the recipe afterwards, so you remember what options are possible.)
     If anyone calls you on this, remind them:   This is how the great chefs cook.

*'Echo' taste elements throughout the meal, for added interest. A squirt of lemon juice can flavor the soup or salad dressing...accent the roast chicken...and end a final note in lemon bars. Garlic has the same ability, a flavor for your audience to recognize and remember throughout the meal. (Except for dessert!)  So does rosemary, sage...and even 'sweet' spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. Flavors like these remind that you've planned and thought this meal through -- instead of just slapping it together from whatever you could scrape out of the vegetable crisper.

When life gives you lemons, make soup, salad, chicken...and cake

*Serve soup first. Not only does it make a meal more like a celebration, but it's a rare soup that isn't budget-minded. A cup of soup uses up leftovers, and adds a gracious note. Serve a generous bowlful, and guests will be too full to make inroads on that roast beef, especially if they've got mashed potatoes, biscuits or popovers (known as Yorkshire Pudding) to keep them busy. They're happy -- and you've got extra beef to work with!


     I've seen guests skimp on Shrimp Scampi, just so they can have a drop or two more of that delicious clam chowder. Guess what costs more?

*End with something sweet. You don't need an elaborate dessert for a successful meal. Instead, serve a piece of sliced fruit, a cookie or even a small truffle, along with a hot drink. It will be just as memorable...and give your satisfied family time to linger.

One luscious cookie. Or two.

*Learn from others who've been through this. Not only did our forebears occasionally have money struggles -- everyone does. Fortunately, the Internet is packed with bloggers who are happy to share their favorite ideas for stretching and serving good, inexpensive food. Don't be surprised if some of these become your family's -- and your -- favorite dishes!

I've learned from these and other posts:

Money Saving Mom  ("Is it possible to save money, when we're barely keeping our head above water?"   and "Choosing to be thankful when life is hard")

Apartment Therapy  ("Living on little to nothing -- Readers' tips")

Fundamental Home  ("How I feed my family of 5 for under $100 every month")

The Simple Dollar  ("20 favorite dirt cheap meals", plus readers' tips for more of same)

Blogs like Surviving And Thriving, Thrifty Mom in Boise, Like Merchant Ships (now archived, but still helpful), Poor Girl Eats Well and My Messy, Thrilling Life are consistently helpful with food advice, savings and recipes.

You'll find more help in my Holiday Goodies blog, including:

Bare Bones series  (everything from beans to apple crisp)

Bare Bones II series   (pasta and noodle dishes)

Flat-Broke Food series  (mac and cheese, caramel corn and more)

The Christmas Goodies blog helps out for Thanksgiving, Christmas -- and everything in between.

UPDATE:  Part III's up now...come on over.

PART III:  Everyday Meals, in the Life of a Brick (or Two)

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